In 2012, an elephant in the Pathanamthitta district in the southern part of Kerala, died from ingestion of large amounts of waste from the Pamba River. 

The incident was widely reported by the local media. Newspaper reports suggested that the waste ingested included clothing and plastic that was thrown into the river as part of a traditional ritual during an annual pilgrimage that involves throwing ones clothes into the river after taking a dip in it. 

It was unnerving for most people, since the elephant is an integral part of the local culture, to learn of the tragic incident. It was perhaps a wake-up call that shook everyone up. 

Every year around 30 million people trek up to pay respect to the Shrine of Lord Ayappa, popularly known as ‘Sabarimala.’ The shrine is located within the famous Periyar Tiger Reserve in Kerala, a protected reserve.  Over the two-month pilgrimage period, huge amounts of plastic are disposed by visitors into the eco-sensitive forest. Authorities and the organisers of this pilgrimage took note and went about looking for partners and programmes that could help minimise and perhaps eliminate this waste. 

In 2015, Hindustan Coca-Cola Beverages Private Limited joined hands with the organisers of the Sabarimala pilgrimage to support an initiative to clean up waste accumulated during the pilgrimage period. That resulted in ‘Mission Green Sabarimala’ - to alleviate the environmental impact of the pilgrimage.  

Hindustan Coca-Cola and the organisers went about systematically in implementing Mission Green Sabrimala. First they set up PET exchange kiosks that incentivised the exchange of used PET bottles with return gifts including the distribution of bio-degradable cloth bags. The offer was widely promoted to the extent that the bio-degradable cloth bags too had environment awareness messages. This was done in partnership with Kudumbasree- the largest women self-help group in the world. 

Simultaneously, Hindustan Coca-Cola collaborated with Travancore Devaswom Board and Sabarimala Sanitation Society to place 200 PET collection bins that prevented litter. There were awareness campaigns run to promote segregation of waste, in six languages. To drive home the message, in collaboration with the Sabarimala Sanitation Society, 800 volunteers stepped in to maintain the hygiene and upkeep of the temple premises.

The effort by Coca-Cola proved to be just the catalyst that people wanted to bring about the change. 

According to Business Standard, in 2016, more than 200,000 people pledged their allegiance to cleanliness over tradition, stating "I won't throw clothes in the Pamba. I will dispose it with the waste." 

Estimates available with the organisers suggested that there is early evidence of the waste dumped into river Pamba coming down. Good for a start but still too little to sit back and relax. Rivers are the lifeline of a community and there is plenty that needs to be done to save them from vanishing. May the Lord at Sabrimala help us save the environment.